‘Excuse me, sir, but why are you wearing a poppy? Remembrance Day was on Thursday.” The speaker was a Spanish gentlemen. The scene: the breakfast room of a hotel in Valladolid, an hour’s train ride north-west of Madrid, on Saturday, the 13th of this month. I was struggling with the toaster. You know how it is when one arrives at a self-service breakfast room.
I replied that I always wore a poppy until Remembrance Sunday, when there was the traditional Cenotaph parade in London. “Ah,” he said. “Forgive me, but why on earth did your country vote the way it did?”
It turned out that my interlocutor was a history professor at Madrid University. He proceeded to pour his heart out about the tragedy of Brexit, and the appalling impact it is having on Britain’s relations with the countries that Boris Johnson refers to – after all the economic and diplomatic carnage his Brexiters are inflicting – as “our European partners”.
Visiting Spain after almost two years of absence from the continent was an almost euphoric experience. Europe! A fine historic Spanish city, none the worse for being relatively unknown – except, perhaps, for its football team – to the Brits who favour the Costa del Brexit. What a treat to be revisiting the European Union we became part of under more enlightened Conservative leaders than the present shower.
True, to visit our daughter – who teaches English in Valladolid – there was an awful lot of frustrating Brexit bureaucracy. This was on top of the tiresome, if wholly understandable, paper, computer and smartphone work necessitated by Covid precautions. But what a relief it was to see that, unlike in Johnson’s England, masks were being worn everywhere: some connection, surely, with the low Covid casualty rate in Spain.
I had just read, in an interview with the New European, that great European Kenneth Clarke observing that under Johnson, whose Brexit-inflicted damage can no longer be confused with the impact of Covid, “we are now getting dangerously close to the ‘elected dictatorship’ that Lord Hailsham, the former lord chancellor, warned us about half a century ago”.
But there is hope. The would-be dictator is being found out. I have been re-reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. There is a great passage: “However, like most untrustworthy persons, Uncle Giles had the gift of inspiring confidence in a great many people with whom he came in contact. Even those who, to their cost, had known him for years, sometimes found difficulty in estimating the lengths to which he could carry his lack of reliability – and indeed sheer incapacity – in matters of business.” Does this remind you of anyone?
The good news is that not only are his parliamentary colleagues and those hoodwinked “red wall” voters beginning to rumble Johnson: it looks as though the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has finally discovered, in the spirit of his great predecessor Harold Wilson, that ridicule is a fine debating tool.
Among the Johnson appointees who certainly deserve to be ridiculed is his so-called “negotiator”, David Frost. Unfortunately, Starmer cannot get at him directly because Johnson catapulted Frost into the House of Lords. But I gather Lord Adonis has a good go at him there. Frost is on record before the referendum as pointing to the considerable advantages of membership of the customs union and single market, which he then put at up 8% of GDP, or £1,500 a year per person on average income.
He should have stuck to his guns, and not sold his soul to the Brexit devil. Which brings us back to Starmer, who was right to oppose Brexit, and should also most certainly have stuck to his guns. The disaster of Brexit is an open goal for the opposition. It is no good espousing a policy of “making Brexit work”. The fact of the matter is that Brexit isn’t working and cannot work.
Despite all the irritation Brexit has inflicted on our partners in Europe, they are aware that the sensible thing for us would be to prepare the way back, albeit with our tail between our legs. The countries of Europe know that they benefited from British membership – not least from the single market that the UK championed before losing its senses.
In his new book Europe Beyond the Euro, Charles Enoch of St Antony’s College, Oxford, quotes Emmanuel Macron as saying: “In a few years’ time, the UK will be able to find its place, if it wishes” in the EU – an EU that would be “refocused on uncompromising values and an effective market”.
Meanwhile, can anyone tell me if there is any precedent for this degree of national self-harm?